Resurgent Bilbao upset Barcelona in new San Mames
Since the new San Mames Barria stadium opened for business in September, Athletic Bilbao have not lost a football match on home soil. The stadium has been built alongside the old ground on a prominent hill overlooking the river which flows through the Spanish city. Many bars and cafes line the roads leading to the top of the hill and on Monday evening they would have been thronged with ecstatic local supporters as their team inflicted a first league defeat this season on Barcelona.
Iker Muniain scored the decisive goal in the 1-0 win against the reigning champions of Spain but for the Basque people on the northern coast of the country, it would be have been a pivotal moment for a proud people. The city is bedecked in red and white shirts and scarves and the inhabitants live and breathe football.
With a longstanding policy of recruiting and developing players from the greater Basque region, supporters tend to have a close affinity with the first team squad and a substantial fan base is prevalent in both the city and its surrounds.
Despite the economic woes of the area, the local council was able to provide funding for the new 200 million euros stadium, replacing the adjoining structure of the same name. There will eventually be a capacity in excess of 53,000 but for now only three sides of the ground have been completed with the remaining area scheduled for completion in July next year once parts of the old stadium have been demolished.
For the first match at the new San Mames, Bilbao recorded a 3-2 win against Celta Vigo amid much anticipation among the home crowd. There followed five further league matches in which the Basque team remained unbeaten.
The visit of previously unbeaten Barcelona would be the first serious test for the team in the new stadium with the prospect of creating the unique atmosphere so prevalent when they beat Manchester United during a Europa League match in the old ground just two seasons earlier.
Barcelona arrived on Sunday evening having lost a Champions League tie that week at Ajax and without injury victim Lionel Messi. Two successive defeats are probably considered a crisis for the Catalan team and their failure to breach the Bilbao defence perhaps demonstrates a reliance on the Argentinian striker.
For Athletic Bilbao, the 1-0 win moves them to fourth place in La Liga table and the nearest challengers to the Barcelona and Madrid monopoly of the league.
That detail will not have been lost upon the thousands of supporters who would have filled the city bars in joyous celebration after the final whistle.
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